Lounge Ax, July 12

My friends in Toronto aren’t much different from my friends here in temperament or circumstance–they’re mostly creative types struggling to get by, gamely trying to live up to their pre-diminished expectations. Yet the Canadian folks seem to inhabit this never-never land with a grace and equanimity distinctly absent in their Chicago counterparts. At first I thought, duh, it’s because they’ve got national health insurance. Eventually, though, I came to a deeper realization–that Generation X, or whatever you want to call the teen-to-twentysomething cohort, is the Canada of generations.

Both Canada and Generation X are underdogs in a struggle to create an indigenous culture in the shadow of hegemony–in Canada’s case, that of the U.S., in Gen X’s case, that of the 60s and its retroactively valorized younger siblings, the 70s and 80s. Fifty-first state of America, shiftless stepchild of the generation that mattered, your half-assed strivings are, when not outright pathetic, sometimes brave and beautiful. What you’ve made isn’t much, but it’s yours and it’s true.

Hayden (formerly Paul Desser), a 25-year-old singer-songwriter from suburban Toronto, has been saddled with the burden of being hailed as the Canadian Beck–Beck being the 26-year-old LA postmodern folk-punk phenom whose fluke 1995 hit “Loser” saddled him with the transient title of king of the slackers. It’s a lazy shorthand that diminishes Hayden, Beck, and, as always, Canada. If anything, Beck’s a Canuck like us all, his state of mind actually a province. After all, less than a letter and a border separate loser and hoser. “The Canadian Beck” is therefore redundant. But Hayden isn’t.

Hayden’s debut album, Everything I Long For, recorded mostly on four-track in his bedroom at his parents’ house and released in 1995 on his own Hardwood label (reissued this year on Outpost, a Geffen imprint), evokes Beck only superficially. They have in common a record label, an apparent distaste for surnames, a leaning toward folk-rock, and a gift for cadence. But where Beck is an impressionist, Hayden is a realist. Where Beck is a syncretist, Hayden is a traditionalist.

For this, Hayden has been slagged as amounting to less than the sum of his influences. Last week in these pages, critic Peter Margasak ungenerously described Hayden as “puttering around lethargic Neil Young-ish dirges, adding stylistic flourishes stolen from alternarock icons like Kurt Cobain and Lou Barlow.” Admittedly, Hayden’s voice ranges from the doomy Unplugged-era growl of Cobain to the po’ ass quaver of Sebadoh’s Barlow. But the Neil factor is another story. No one in Canada is bashful about loving Neil, not even the indie-est, fogey-hating-est young punk, not even though he and Joni Mitchell continue to reap Junos (the Canadian Grammys) long after having departed for California.

Yes, Hayden’s got more than a little Neil in him–the wobbly harmonica break on “Bad as They Seem,” the album’s lead cut and first single, conjures a plausible vision of a joint going round the bedroom, the window open in the dead of winter, and nods all around as the original Wheezer sings, “Now I’m going back to Canada on a journey through the past / And I won’t be back till February comes.” There’s a reason Crazy Horse’s guitar grind turns up on every third indie-rock record: Neil painted a picture of life as a slog through snowdrifts, a vision Hayden and his demographic would discover several economic and spiritual busts later, standing numb in psychic wet boots. No wonder he’s the godfather of grunge. (Neil reportedly called young Hayden with the intention of signing him to Neil’s new Warner-distributed Vapor Records imprint. I hope the kid doesn’t write a song about it.)

Heads bobbed in MTV recognition as Hayden launched into “Bad as They Seem,” two-thirds of the way into his set. While not his best or even his catchiest song, it sketches the Hayden universe fairly completely–guy spends his summer days playing guitar on the roof of his parents’ house, writing songs about the passersby, idly pining for the neighbor lady and/or her teenage daughter. “What do I do this for? / I’ve got to get out some more / Go down to the grocery store / Meet someone I’ll adore,” he croaks. Maybe head to the store, but see what’s in the fridge first. What’s today, Thursday? In my parents’ house I’ll live for free, until I’m at least 43. That’s a keeper, better jot it down.

On “We Don’t Mind,” which concluded his truncated set (predictably, schedule slippage through three opening bands ate into his allotted time), he leisurely unfurls a sweet fantasy of a boy and girlfriend rolling out for a big breakfast on a workday, then calling in sick for each other: “They’re pretty mad about you / But they’ll get through / You call my work in my mother’s voice / They believe you.” Though it rains till five o’clock on the boy and his girlfriend–the natural order of capitalism wreaking revenge, perhaps–they say, “We don’t mind.” And why should they? They might not have the world in their pocket–but they do have the keys to their parents’ houses and national health insurance cards.

Superchunk’s 1990 single “Slack Motherfucker” was arguably the first slacker anthem, but its pop-punk attack (“I’m working / But I’m not working for you”) was incongruously energetic–this was music for coming off the two-to-ten shift at the Kinko’s in Chapel Hill all coffeed up and just in time to catch Flat Duo Jets at the Cat’s Cradle. A true slacker anthem, though, ought to have the feel of days on call, sick days, days to be spent finding a job but not looking–even the loping pop-hop groove of “Loser” threatened to upset the torpor.

Hayden used to rock out: in high school he played with future members of Phleg Camp and hHead (which counts for something up north–the former are now backing Ontario producer Daniel Lanois’ sister, the latter opened for Page and Plant last year). But that was before he got his fingers on the lo-fi pulse of his quietly beleaguered generation. One man, one guitar–a model of efficiency in the age of living small by default.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Hayden by James Crump/RSP.